I ♥ Aruba

Aruba is expensive as fuck. That was my thought when I hopped my ass on Expedia looking for all inclusive deals after seeing the commercial for this little island for the umpteenth time and deciding to call them on their bluff when they say, “One Happy Island.” I wanted to see exactly what makes Arubians so happy and I was willing to get there by any means necessary. That is, any means I could afford on a social worker’s paycheck. After seeing those vacation package prices it seemed like I had to do something I thought I would never do: check out Airbnb. I’d always heard horror stories from people who stayed in strangers’ homes and had come to the conclusion that it wasn’t for me. The realization that staying in someone else’s home may be the only way I could go to Aruba and still have money for food and entertainment is all it took to put things into perspective. But there was no way I was staying in some stranger’s home without backup, so 10 of us (4 couples and twin boys) headed to Aruba for a week of galavanting.

Where to stay
Merlot Villas is a small gated community in Noord. The villa had 4 master bedrooms (one of them being a suite) and a half bath. The owner of the property even threw in a 9 seater van for an extra fee and his associate, who greeted us when we arrived, provided the boys with play pens and a crib. The villa is s beautiful and comes with a pool, BBQ grill, and a laundry room. It even has a Sonos sound system that allowed us to blast soca throughout the house.

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What to see
Eagle Beach
Absolutely gorgeous. We spent our first full day here. It’s easy to see how it got on the list of the world’s most beautiful beaches (it’s #3 by the way).

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Pristine!

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We went on a 9 hour Aruba off road island tour with ABC Tours which took us to all the landmarks. We had to drive through Arikok Park so we rode in a 4×4 Land Rover, the only way to safely navigate the rough terrain. We poked fun of people who took their rental sedan and got stuck. The ride was hella bumpy but it was so much fun. Our tour guide Ray is quite knowledgeable and this was when I finally learned just what makes Aruba such a happy island.

1. Alcohol. I mean this is pretty self explanatory. We Trinis love liquor, so i completely understand why. Rum is life.

2. The economy is up 86% due to tourism.

3. Because of their great economy, Aruba’s unemployment rate is at 3%.

4. And their crime rate is only at 1%.

5. Health insurance for everyone. And everything is covered except for cosmetic surgery.

6. Their educational system is top notch. When you’re 6 you are mandated to learn Dutch. If you do not learn Dutch you will not proceed to the second grade, where you will learn English. In the 5th grade you learn Dutch, English and Spanish. By the 6th grade you learn Papiemento, the native tongue, which is a combination of Dutch, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Creole (am I leaving anything out) . Papiemento is only spoken on four islands: Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, and Cape Verde. In high school you get to choose between German, Spanish, or French. After junior college you can migrate to another country to further your education. If you get a loan, you have five years after graduation to pay it off. They give you time to settle down. Or, you can make a case with the government to get a full scholarship that covers EVERYTHING.

7. The drinking water. According to the World Health Organization, Aruba has the best drinking water. Because their water is so tasty Arubians drink a lot of it and water has been proven to improve your mood.

8. Arubians stick together. I would not go so far as to say they don’t see color, but there is a one for all, all for one sentiment.

Here are some highlights from the tour.

Casibari Rock Formations, also known as Aruba’s Stonehenge.

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Ray! He’s the best.

California Light House

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Gold Mill Ruins
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The Quadirici Cave

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Alto Vista Chapel

Natural Pool, a coastal swimming hole, was so crowded. My face just fell when I realized I had to wait for people to come out so I could go in. But when I got in I did not want to leave, so I understand.

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They took us to two beaches:

Baby Beach
The water here is mostly shallow and the fish were abundant. I snorkeled for hours.

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Here is a drone shot of Baby Beach

And another small beach. The name escapes me but there was a small jump off point.

We even made a surprise stop at a grotto not too far from the Gold Mills.

They gave us lunch. And I’m not talking a sandwich. A real meal at their own Waka Waka Adventure Cafe and Cantina.

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Hello?

The day was well spent. We pretty much covered the entire island, which I believe is about 18 miles around according to Ray.

We took another shorter tour with Red Sails the following day. They took us out to a shipwreck. Now, when I booked this tour I was excited. I was like, “Yes, a shipwreck!” But when we pulled up to the wreckage of the SS Antilla, one of the Caribbean’s largest at almost 400 feet, I hesitated to get in that 60 foot deep blue water. It was freaky. And the captain of the catamaran did not help when he said to be careful with the current. It could carry you away if you’re not paying attention. But I said fuck it. I grabbed my life jacket and flippers and slid into the cold water. When I put my face under the water I was in awe. I just floated face down and stared at the wreckage. I stared at it for so long that my mind started playing tricks on me and I could have sworn I saw a shark emerge from the wreckage and make his was in my direction. But it turned out to be someone riding one of those under water jet thingies. When I raised my head up from the water I was almost under the catamaran. The captain wasn’t lying about the current. After snorkeling they treated us to greasy pastries stuffed with meat. My favorite kind of food. I took full advantage of the open bar and drank about 5 or 6 rum punches. I lost count. The DJ put on some great music and it was a fun ride back. I was three sheets to the wind by the time we pulled back into De Palm Pier. What a glorious Sunday. (My grandmother just rolled in her grave).

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This sad image directly above is the only one of the shipwreck we could save after our gopro files were corrupted. We are still working on retrieving the rest.

Where to eat
La  Vista at Aruba Marriot
We went to a live carnival show here. For a flat fee of $59 we had access to the buffet and were treated to a beautiful show in which masqueraders showcased costumes from their carnival season. We had a great view as we dined. One of the masqueraders pulled me from our table and I was forced into a conga line, which turned out to be quite fun.

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Zeerover

You cannot go to Aruba and not eat at Zeerover. At least that’s what the people of YouTube said. So I had to see what all the fuss was about. I was not disappointed. At this restaurant fishermen bring in fresh catches every hour. You simply place your order, take your number, sit and enjoy the scenery and someone will bring your food. We were lucky enough to have a great view of the sunset during dinner.

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The Old Cunucu House
This restaurant is so cozy and inviting. I felt like I was having dinner in someone’s home. It was not near any of the other restaurants on the strip. It was on a back road in Noord. It was peaceful and quiet, except for our table. The lighting was soft on the veranda where we ate and laughed and got drunk…again. Or maybe I was still drunk from the shipwreck tour. I don’t remember. That entire Sunday was just one great drunken blur of rum and food that I should not be eating but fuck it I was on vacation.

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Nightlife

We are not avid clubbers. We found a strip that was obviously put there for tourists. There are a lot of restaurants and clubs to choose from. We ended up at Senior Frog and had a decent time. When we got there there was hardly anyone there. But the place was getting lively when we decided to head out.  The music was great, the drinks were better and we had a great time. We walked about the strip and walked pass a live performance at Hard Rock Cafe (extra touristy) then settled in at an outdoor dance floor because the DJ was playing reggae. I did not take a lot of pics.

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Needless to say I love Aruba. The climate is amazing. It’s dry and very windy so you never feel uncomfortably hot. The people are warm and friendly. I went to Aruba thinking of it as just another Caribbean island to check off my list, but at the end of my six nights I did not want to leave. Seriously, I was googling houses for sale and social work jobs. Usually when I leave an island I’m thinking onto the next one. But with Aruba I knew I would return. Especially now that I know it can be done without breaking the bank.

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Birthday Weekend In Atlantic City

I’ve always thought of Atlantic City as the poor man’s Las Vegas, so it made total sense for me to spend my birthday weekend there. Hildon and I headed to AC with his brother Dane and his wife Rita, who were celebrating their anniversary.

Atlantic City isn’t as big a deal now as it was when it was first incorporated in 1854. It’s first hotel, Belloe House, was actually built in 1853 when developers saw AC’s potential as a resort town because it’s shores were on the Atlantic. Right after it was incorporated The Camden and Atlantic Railroad began in 1854 to give people in Philly easy access to the town. In 1870, The Boardwalk was built as a way to keep sand out of hotels but then it was expanded when it’s popularity grew. In 1878 another train service, The Philadelphia and Atlantic Railway, began as a way to cater to the hordes of tourists coming to the city. But AC didn’t boom until the early 20th when many of the boarding houses along the boardwalk were replaced by lavish hotels, like the Ritz-Carlton, that boasted modern and luxurious amenities.

When the prohibition era hit in the 1920s, Atlantic City grew even more popular because a lot of officials would smuggle alcohol into the city. So many tourists would flock to the AC just to get a drink in the back rooms of nightclubs, restaurants, and other establishments. The city even called itself “The World’s Playground.” If you’ve ever seen Boardwalk Empire you would know that the man to see for illegal alcohol was politician/racketeer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, portrayed by Steve Buscemi in the show. Nucky made fortune on kickbacks from alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. Atlantic City was the place adults went to play during this time.

The 30s through the 60s were the heyday for nightclub entertainment in AC. On the south side were the all white clubs, while blacks partied on the north side in their own entertainment district on Kentucky Avenue. Then there was Club Harlem and Paradise club, among others, that drew a mixture of black and white patrons with their live Jazz and R&B performances.

But after World War II AC started to decline like a lot of other older cities. Poverty levels soared and with that came a lot of crime. The decline of AC happened for multiple reasons. Firstly, cars became more available to Americans. When people depended on the railroads they would stay in AC for at least a week. When they got cars, they would go for a couple days and then leave instead of spending weeks. They had more freedom to go and come as they please. Then suburbs started popping up. A lot of men were returning from war and using their GI Bills to build homes. And these homes came with some of the luxuries of hotels, like air-conditioning and swimming pools. So people seemed less interested in going to the beach during the summer. They would just chill in their backyards. But the biggest factor that contributed to AC’s declining popularity was commercial airlines with their fast jets and cheap service to resorts in Miami and Bahamas.

Gambling was finally legalized in 1976  and in 1978 the first legal casino in the United States opened in AC. This helped with a lot of the poverty in urban areas. But as Atlantic City was declining, Las Vegas was just getting started, and by the late 70s Vegas was the preferred destination for gambling. Donald Trump (I hate that I have to mention him in this article) actually helped bring some popularity back to AC when he organized boxing matches to attract people to his casinos. Mike Tyson had most of his bouts in the 80s in AC. And this helped reestablish AC as a gambling destination. By the 90s AC was one of the most popular tourist destinations again.

However, Atlantic City still faces problems. Vegas was redeveloped and is now bigger and better than ever. Casinos have been opened in Connecticut and Philadelphia. Even Queens, NY has a casino. So a lot of people would rather go to their nearby casinos than drive more than a couple hours to AC. Then the recession hit and a lot of plans to build more resorts were abandoned. MGM International Resorts were set to build there but they backed out. And Super Storm Sandy didn’t help. AC was hit hard. The boardwalk was a total mess.

But I believe AC is due for a resurgence. There is still good stuff there. The Tanger Outlets are always fun. It was an unusual 65 degrees in February, so I spent my birthday walking around the mall. I did a little shopping. Very little, because,  as I said before,  I’m working poor. We stayed at the Sheraton, which is just a short walk from the outlets and other attractions. We headed to Carmine’s as soon as we were settled. It’s located at The Quarter in Tropicana. It was 10:30 at night and the place was popping. If you’re ever in AC please hit up Carmine’s. It’s a family-style Italian restaurant with delicious food and superb cocktails.

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Penne Alla Vodka and Chicken Parmigiana

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Blood Orange Margarita

The Quarter was live. After Carmine’s we walked across to Wet Willie’s and indulged in huge frozen drinks. I had the strawberry pina colada. We sipped near the fountain in the middle of The Quarter and watched people file in and out of Cuba Libre, a Latin American restaurant with cocktails and dancing. It looked like a good time, but I was stuffed and already tipsy,  so I was content with standing outside, listening to the music, and watching women struggle to walk in five inch heels.

On the night of my birthday, we had dinner at Buddhakan on the pier, overlooking the water. This is another great restaurant. If you like Asian cuisine as much as I do, please check it out. It’s a Pan Asian restaurant, meaning it serves dishes from various Asian countries. It’s worth it just to see the huge, glowing Buddha statue in the middle of the restaurant and the ceiling decorated as the night’s sky. It’s dreamy and romantic. The menu is trendy. Try the oxtail dumplings. You only get three. LOL! But it’s good. And you can’t go wrong with the fiery rock shrimp on bao buns. I don’t have any pics for you. I’m sorry. I devoured my food the minute it hit the table. Hildon shamed me into taking a pic of my desert before I face planted into it.

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Chocolate Cheesecake Mouse

After stuffing our faces and taking goofy pics,

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Okay,  I was the only goofy one.

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That’s better.

we headed to Caesars Palace and chilled in the lounge at Dusk Nightclub. We listened to hits from the 1990s and early 2000s and sipped on vodka cranberry, then Hennessy, because brown liquor always gets the job the done. At least for me.

Okay, so Atlantic City is no Vegas. Nowhere is like Vegas. But AC has a history. A resilience. And it’s had so many ups and downs in the past that it’s only natural for me to believe that it will be among the most popular tourist destinations again. Besides, AC has something Vegas doesn’t. The beach. It was its calling card in the mid-1800s and it’s its calling card now. It still wasn’t warm enough to go to the beach, but AC is great for a weekend getaway in any weather. But I do intend to hit up that boardwalk this summer. I encourage you to do the same.

By the way, I condensed what I learned about AC on Wikipedia. If you wish to know more, head here https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_City,_New_Jersey

Memories of a Sailor

The young Sailor couldn’t hold up. Her friends were trying to get her to stand but her legs would not cooperate. She had just gotten off the phone. Her grandmother passed away. We were in the middle of the Persian Gulf and she would not be able to attend the funeral since that is reserved for only emergencies involving immediate family members. I watched as she sat on the floor and rocked back and forth with her head in her hands. I wondered what I would do if I ever got a call saying my mother was sick or dying or dead. I imagined it would look something like this…

I laugh now but it was around that time my anxiety kicked in and insomnia took over my life. Thoughts of losing loved ones while halfway around the world consumed me. Every night after my shift I would lie in my coffin rack and obsess about death. And not my own death, even though I was housed on a nuclear vessel. Sometimes the ship succeeded in eventually rocking me to sleep. Other times I had to reluctantly take sleeping pills. And then, “REVELLIE REVEILLE! ALL HANDS ON DECK!” It’s amazing how quickly six in the morning comes when you’re not counting how many hours you have left to get some decent sleep. I never got used to that announcement. We dragged ourselves to the head — where there was always a wait — to freshen up before heading down to the galley for the same breakfast we’d been having for 6 weeks and counting: powdered eggs, rubbery pancakes, and ham. Bacon was a luxury. There was always a line for made-to-order omelets. Half the line was night shift personnel hoping to get at least one decent meal before getting off. I always took my time getting upstairs to the hangar deck for morning muster because it was just my chief reiterating some shit and basically

I was an Aviation Support Equipment Technician. Jack of all trades. Master of none. I’m not going to explain what the job entailed because I was horrible at it. Anyway, lunch was just as disappointing as breakfast. Once I found bones in my tuna salad. I didn’t eat tuna for years afterward. If I wasn’t thinking about death, I was wondering what I should eat first once we pulled into the next port. It was always a bone-in ribeye, medium well.

I know the Navy commercials say “Accelerate Your Life,” but life out to sea grew monotonous. Breakfast, Spirit of 76. Spirit of fucking 76? The Reagan’s name for field day. That shit makes no sense. Anyway, it was an entire hour of cleaning. What normal commands called field day. Basically, I swept or wiped the same spot over and over while shit talking and/or blasting music in my ears. After Spirit we got our work orders and went about our business fixing shit and preventing shit from going down. Supporting the squadrons. Then lunch, more work, dinner, work, and then evening muster.

Every now and then dinner would be surf and turf. Usually for a special occasion like a holiday or birthday month celebrations. But sometimes the lines would be so horrendous that I would just go to the ship’s store and get a cup of Ramen. Sea life was like Groundhog Day. Sometimes I would randomly scream “LAND!” and watch people drop everything and run to the hanger deck opening only to angrily discover nothing but water, all for my amusement. I was easily amused.

Of course there were things we would do to pass the time after we got off our shifts. Chess and basketball tournaments, sumo wrestling (don’t ask), cards, dominoes, and of course secret sex with your sea boo. Aaaaahhhh sex out to sea. I never had any. I couldn’t imagine it being a comfortable experience. Maybe I didn’t want it badly enough. But some people got quite creative. I remember when they found a young couple in one of the decontamination booths, which would have made more sense if we were actually out to sea. I guess getting a hotel room wasn’t dangerous enough for them. They were caught, shamed, and punished.  They didn’t see another port for the rest of the deployment. I know people who had sex regularly on that ship for years and never got caught. You just have to be smart about it. Our last night in that port, the Chaplin came on the PA system and condemned the Sailors who have sex on the ship. He then started singing “Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places.” I was lying in my rack, howling with laughter. I swear that wasn’t just coffee in that man’s mug.

That crazy Chaplin and the people I called my friends on that ship, which seemed to spend more days out to see than not (And more time out to see than any other ship in San Diego. I know this because people from other ships would crack on us at the Navy Exchange. Talmbout “Damn! The Reagan going out again!?”). But I digress. These people kept me sane while haze gray and underway. I know it sounded like I was bitching up there, but most of my memories are wonderful. We worked hard while out to sea (12 hours on/12 off), but we played even harder. In fact a little too hard. I’d be lying if I said I remember how I got back to the ship every time. Liberty buddies are life savers. I had the best. I was a good buddy too. I had to physically dress one of my shipmates one morning after a night of binge drinking. We overslept in our hotel room and were extremely close to missing ship’s movement. Fort Lauderdale and Miami were lit. It was pure debauchery when we hit a port. I was going through my pics from deployments and was like

I can’t post these. Some of them I would have to get permission from my friends to post. And I beg my friends to run their pics by me first before putting it on Facebook and tagging me for my aunts to see me acting a straight fool. I did some things that I’m not proud of. Let’s just say a good time was had by all, particularly in ports like the aforementioned, Brisbane, Honolulu, Rio, Dubai, Singapore, and Santa Barbara. Yes, Santa Barbara was surprisingly lit AF. Old, rich, white people know how to party.

The Navy treated me right and there are times I wished I had a do over. Perhaps I would take it more seriously. I was a terrible Sailor who never gained any military bearing. My uniform was always on point though. Nobody could call me a shit bag. And I see a lot of memes making fun of veterans. Saying we only joined because we had no other choice. It’s true in some cases. I know some people who signed up to avoid jail time. I had a choice. Most of the people I know had a choice. Do I struggle and work two jobs to pay my way through community college, or do I get this GI Bill money and attend a good school? Hmmmmmm… AND I get to travel? I’ve been to places most of my high school friends can only dream of visiting. So I don’t give a fuck about what you say. I’m proud of the choice I made and the experience I’ve gained. Not too proud of some of the memories, but I lived damn it!

Happy Veterans Day!

 

Since Mexico…

I’ve been enjoying my summer. I thought it would be all downhill from my Playa del Carmen vacation, but I’ve managed to go places I never considered before. Hildon and I went to Philadelphia for a birthday party one Saturday and decided to explore this historical city the following Sunday morning. With only a maximum of three hours to spare before we hit the road before that notorious Sunday afternoon traffic on the 95 began, we Googled some of Philly’s must-sees. Our first stop was the Liberty Bell.

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A lot smaller than I imagined.

Then we headed over to Franklin Square.

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Then we walked what seemed like a mile to what slowly turned into a sketchier part of town to visit one my favorite authors, Edgar Allen Poe’s, home. We got there at half past 12 to find out that they were closed for lunch. They would reopen at one. Hildon needed something to drink and I told him that I think there is a bodega around the corner further down the block. He asked me how I knew that and I jokingly told him because we were in the hood and all hoods have bodegas. I was right. We took our time getting back and stopped to take some photos of a mural of Poe at the side of a building across the street from the museum.

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Two other people were waiting to enter the historic site when we returned. Once inside, we watched a short film on Poe’s life and explored the old house. Something about houses with a lot of history makes me at once uneasy and excited.

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The parlor. Spooky right?

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This scared the shit out of me.

If you’ve ever read Poe’s The Black Cat you would know why I thought whoever put that stuffed cat there (the cellar) is an asshole. If you haven’t read it, please do. You won’t regret it. We hurried back to the car and drove back to New York.

Speaking of New York, you want to hear something funny? While we were in Philly, I made fun of our friend Simone. She’s lived in Philly for years and has never been to see Liberty Bell. Meanwhile, I have never been to the Statue of Liberty. Granted, I enlisted in the Navy less than three months after migrating to Brooklyn. But I’ve been living here for five years since being discharged and two Thursdays ago was the first time I had ever been to Liberty Island. It was arguably the hottest day of the summer, but I refused to let the beads of sweat slowly making their way toward my ass crack dampen my mood. I was so excited. Then an older woman passed out from the heat as the ferry docked. I joined the choir of people screaming for a doctor. I stood still waiting, listening for someone to yell, “I’m a doctor,”  but unlike in the movies when a physician would always miraculously appear, no one came. I stood there hoping she got the help she needed until we were herded off the ferry like cattle.

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I was in such awe of this large, green woman and what she represents. At times I stopped and stared at her in silence amid the sea of tourists. Those large cups in our hands are from the Bill’s Lemonade stand. It tastes homemade. If ever you’re on the island you have to try it. It made the heat somewhat bearable as we stood in the sun waiting on a ferry to take us back to lower Manhattan. Then we went to my favorite place in the city: The Highline. I try to go there at least once every summer. 

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We finished off our day at my favorite pizza place. It never disappoints.

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The Bella Mia pizza at Don Giovanni.

It was a good day.

A Week In Riviera Maya

So, I went to Mexico. Always wanted to go, but every time I bring it up someone has to mention the frigging cartels. This time I ignored the negativity and booked the trip. Every one we told we were going to Playa del Carmen was all like, “Why not Cancun?” Well, because the Riviera Maya district has a lot more to see and do. If we were going to Mexico to party, we would have stayed in Cancun. But we went to see the Mayan Ruins and experience some of that Mexican culture, so Playa was perfect for us.

We stayed at the Catalonia Privileged Maroma.

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Now, we paid extra to be bumped up to “privileged,” which gave us access to all five restaurants. I mean it was convenient to be able to have breakfast and lunch at the restaurants near/on the beach instead of having to walk what felt like a quarter mile to the buffet near the lobby (the food on this resort is pretty good, by the way). But other than that I didn’t feel very privileged. Although, the room was nice, the staff was nicer, and the maids fashioned cute animals out of towels for us.

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But the view left much to be desired. This resort is in a forest so all we saw was bush when we stepped out on the balcony. We got one of the rooms that does not face other rooms, which turned out to be a good thing. It was nice having sex on our balcony as an option. *ahem* Another good thing about facing the trees is we got visitors.

It was fun until one of them pissed on our porch. Coatis are all over the resort. They are friendly creatures, so do not be afraid when accosted by one or an entire family of them.

The resort is a good size. I did a lot of walking, which is great because it is all-inclusive and I drank my weight in mojitos and took full advantage of the buffets. The pool was big enough so that I did not feel crowded when I went for a swim, and deep enough for the free scuba diving lessons being offered. The beach was amazing with the exception of seaweed on some days. I spent most of my time lounging with a book in one hand and a drink in the other.

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I had some of my best sleep on that chaise. The staff is friendly. The waiters kept  the drinks coming. There were also activities for guests to participate in, including volleyball tournaments, synchronized swimming competitions, and dance aerobic classes. None of which I participated in, because I didn’t go all that way to exercise. But those who took part seemed to be having fun. Now, I have to tell you that if you are coming to Mexico to party, this is not the place for you. Downtown Playa del Carmen is 30 minutes away from the resort. If we wanted to be in the hustle and bustle of La Quinta Avenue we would have booked rooms around that area. But we did not leave the busy streets of NYC to deal with more pedestrians. If you are like us and just want to relax and sip cocktails, then Catalonia Privileged Maroma, or any of the nearby resorts, is for you.

But I didn’t go to Mexico just to look fabulous on the beach.

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As seen here. (Ah try ah ting!)

We came to Mexico to explore. We booked two combo tours at playadelcarmentours.com. The first one took us to Chichen Itza (pronounced chee-chen eet-za) and the cenote Ik Kil (say-no-tay eek-keel). We started off with Chichen Itza. It took a little over 2 hours to get there after they picked everyone up from the surrounding resorts. Let me tell you, I thought Trinidad was hot. The sun over Chichen Itza is a force. The umbrellas the tour guides gave us did not make a lick of difference. The heat was so unbearable that I could not even concentrate on what the guide was saying. By noon I did not give a damn about Mayan culture as the sun beat down on us. The guide wasn’t telling me shit I couldn’t read on Wikipedia. Most of us let our eyes roam about the grounds, silently wishing he would shut up. We just wanted to be set free so we could explore and take enough pictures of the ruins before we had to head back to the air conditioned bus.

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 I look defeated in this pic don’t I?

That heat was brutal. I was drenched in sweat by the time I sat my tired ass back on that bus. If you’re heading to Chichen Itza please do not forget your sunscreen. Also, carry cash. There are hundreds of vendors there, all vying for your attention and their prices are reasonable. My pedometer said that I walked over fives miles that day. Chichen Itza was bigger than expected. It was quite impressive. But I could not WAIT to get to Ik Kil after burning up for hours. I have to admit that I was a bit scared at the thought of swimming in a pool that was over 60 feet deep. But after wandering around under that hot ass sun my body was ready for a dip in some cold spring water. However, we stopped for a bite to eat before heading to the cenote. We had lunch at Pueblo Maya, a Mexican/Latin restaurant. They had local cuisine and international cuisine. I went for the former, naturally, because I needed an authentic taco. We were treated to a show during lunch as well.

I was too busy stuffing my face so I only got the tail end of the performance. Also, right in front of the restaurant is a gift shop where you can purchase items made by modern day Mayans, including jewelry made from real Mexican silver.

Ik Kil is less than 10 minutes away from Chichen Itza. We had about an hour to change, shower quickly and climb down about 90 slippery steps to get to this cenote. All those photos of it in Google images did not compare to beholding it in person. And, like every other tourist attraction, there was a crowd and a wait to climb down the ladder into the water. Some brave souls climbed up the steps and dove head first. The line for the dive was a lot shorter, but I was okay with waiting because NO. Also,

Reminded me of Titanic.

We spent about 10 minutes in the water, which was not as cold as described to us. I was expecting pins and needles, but it was tolerable.

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I honestly did not want to get out. It felt so serene floating and looking up through the opening at the heavens and all the people staring down at us from above who were too chicken shit to get in the water. My arms and legs were tired from straddling. I was knocked out on that long ride back to the hotel.

It’s a good thing we booked the tours a day apart because I would not have been able to do them back to back after all that walking. A day of rest in between was needed. The day after, we did our second combo tour. This time to Tulum (too-loom) and Xel-Ha (shel-ha). I enjoyed Tulum more than Chichen Itza mostly because of its location. The ruins are located on a cliff facing the Caribbean Sea, and the breeze made the tour more bearable. I was actually able to learn something. For instance, Tulum was one of the last cities that was built and inhabited by the Mayans. It was also surrounded by a wall to protect its inhabitants from their enemies.

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El Castillo

I personally found Tulum more aesthetically pleasing than Chichen Itza because of the palm trees and flowers surrounding the ruins. It is more tropical. It is also crawling with iguanas, which I love.

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He didn’t move until after the pic was taken.

Sadly, the tide was too high for us to take a stroll on the beach. We were sprinting to the bus when this happened:

We were late getting to our seats, but I could not resist recording The Dance of the Flyers.

We spent the rest of the day, about 6 hours, in Xel-Ha, an aquatic-themed eco park just 8 miles south of Tulum.

This park is all inclusive with three buffet restaurants and open bars. I had my fill of guacamole and margaritas that day.

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Eighty percent of my vacation diet.

We pretty much covered the whole park. We swam among the fish, into a cave, watched OTHER people swim with dolphins, because I don’t trust dolphins. I’ll just leave it at that. They cute though. >__> We zip-lined a few times and floated down a lazy man river in a mangrove.

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Mosquitoes tore my ass up in that mangrove, but it was totally worth it. At the end of the day I was sunburned and my bottom lip had swollen from all the salt water, but I was happy. It was a day well spent.

I enjoyed our time in Riviera Maya. It’s a great district with lots to experience. I’m glad I was able to cross it off my bucket list. I hope you enjoyed reading about my vacation as much as I enjoyed writing about it, because the way my bank account is set up, you probably won’t be reading about my next holiday till next year.

How Becoming a Social Worker Made Me a Better Person.

If someone told me a few years ago that I would make a good social worker, I would have asked, “A what now?” The words social never came before worker while growing up in Trinidad. I am not saying there was not a need for the profession in 1990’s rural T&T, it is just that no one I knew ever needed one, and I knew A LOT of oppressed people. Wives or common law wives were beaten once in while by their significant others, but everyone just went about their own businesses. That was something that was to be handled within that particular family and that was it. No one ever called the cops. Not even that one time a man was beating his wife so badly that he uprooted a handful of her hair right there in the street, surrounded by his neighbors. I was 12 at the time and wondered why no one intercepted. But that was life.

I graduated from secondary school, and migrated to New York. Within three months I was on my way to basic training in Great Lakes, Illinois. I joined the Navy to see the world and take advantage of that free college my recruiter just would not shut up about. In all 10 of those years I spent as a Sailor, the words “social” and “work/worker” never came up in that order, even though there are contracted civilian social workers in the Navy who do case management and counseling — something else I have learned since enrolling in the program. I cannot even remember watching a film or reading a novel that mentioned this profession. And I have seen many movies and read a good deal of literature. Or maybe I just never paid attention or gave it any thought.

I got out the military and enrolled in college. I decided to pursue a degree in English. Then I thought, what the fuck am I gonna do with that? So I switched to Communications. Do not laugh at me. Just a month before graduating from Fordham University was when I was introduced to the field of social work. This is surprising since Fordham’s School of Social Service is such a big deal. This just goes to show how oblivious I was to anything not within my orbit. I was quite self-involved. I was online reading an article, which stated that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. I was floored. That is a suicide every 65 minutes. In 2012 alone 6, 500 veterans took their own lives. That is more than those who actually died in combat. Still, other sources say that those numbers are underestimated. I always heard about vets coming home from combat and having issues, but, again, this did not concern me so I never paid it any mind. I think it is safe to say that I was quite detached from the veteran population. After I got out I did not want to see another veteran. I only encountered other ex-service members at the Brooklyn VA Medical Center.

After reading the article, I was moved. I felt the sudden need to reach out to my fellow vets, because it is not fair that now that they are no longer able to serve they are forgotten. So I was particularly upset at the fact that our government was not doing all it should for the men and women who sacrificed so much to serve their country, or in my case — to get free tuition. I mean, I made sacrifices too. Don’t get me wrong. Being out to sea for months was no picnic, but it paled in comparison to what those in combat have had to endure. The news bothered me, mostly because I felt like an idiot. I felt guilty. I never took my military career seriously. I wasn’t a shit bag, okay? I was a good Sailor, for the most part. But I always looked at it as temporary. No matter how long I stayed in I refused to let my experiences in the military define me. Up to this day I have difficulty letting it known that I am a veteran. I mean if someone asked, which is rare, of course I would say yes. I am not ashamed of my Navy career, but I am aware of the stigma that is attached to being a veteran. Okay, this is enough of a tangent.

Anyway, after reading the article, wouldn’t you know it, I saw an ad for social work school. I cannot remember for what school, but I clicked on it and read up a bit on the profession. This, ladies and gentleman, was my introduction to social work. I did some research and made up my mind to get my master’s. I called up the veteran representative for Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service, and she informed me that it was already passed the deadline but if I can apply within the next 48 hours she would see what she could do. What a sweetheart. That was the end of April. By June I had been accepted. Yay!

At this point I still had no idea what I was in for. I never thought I would even want a master’s much less one on a subject I had only learned about recently. I still had my doubts. That’s me. My whole life is one big doubt. But things always seem to work out. *knocks on wood* I did not know what to expect. Who does, really? But never in a million years would I have thought that two years in social work school would change me.

I am a lot more helpful to strangers. The other day I was in a hurry to catch the train to get to my internship, and this older woman was struggling to get her trolley down the steps. I actually stopped to help her and missed my train. I chose to help her instead of trampling her to get through those subway doors before they closed, which is what I would normally do. I was an asshole, I know.

I seem to care a lot more about the poor. And I am not talking about my own personal experience with the poor, which is probably considered middle class in the U.S. these days if I am to be totally honest. I mean poor. Growing up in Trinidad, I looked at America as the land of milk and honey. A place where opportunities flowed and money came easily. Boy was I wrong. Turns out you have to work just as hard as in Trinidad to get where you want to be. Shit, probably harder. Go figure. With that in mind, I assumed every adult who was always broke and never had a decent job simply lacked the ambition needed to strive in this country. Turns out a lack of opportunities due to discrimination plays a big a part in certain populations remaining in poverty for generations. This is where the human rights and social justice aspect of social work comes into play. It is my duty to seek social change for those individuals who make up oppressed groups. I did not think I would be able to do this one. I mean, who do I think I am fighting for others? But with the right resources I was actually able to help some folks out while interning at Catholic Charities during my first year of grad school. They were really grateful for my help and it felt good to help others instead of myself for a change.

I am more trustworthy than ever. I was never much for lying or stealing, but something I was never good at was keeping secrets. If someone told me something and made me promise not to tell anyone else, chances are I broke that promise. I would not go blab it to every person I ran into, but I would tell someone close to me and make them promise not to tell. I know, terrible. Well, I no longer have that problem. At my most recent internship at the Manhattan Vet Center, I worked as an adjustment counselor. I loved it. I mean, hello. I got to listen to all these stories, some of which were horrific and enabled me to gain so much respect for combat veterans, and all I had to do was ask open ended questions to get more and more info. Basically, as a social worker I have to be nosey. But, and it’s a big but, confidentiality is key. Some days I would go home with all the information a client shared and I was so disturbed by it that I felt the urge to call up my boyfriend and just unload on his ass. But I fought it. Social work has cured me of my diarrhea of the mouth. There is something special about the therapist client relationship. I felt like I was part of a secret club. Nothing that was said within my office walls got out. It was definitely a privilege to be confided in by people who are part of a population that avoids rehashing its combat experiences. I would not dream of breaking their trust, or anyone else’s trust for that matter. From this moment on, I am a volt.

I am a lot more compassionate. I used to be worried that I might be a sociopath, because whenever I saw those commercials asking to donate money to kids in Africa I felt nothing while gazing at the images of the starving children. Granted, I gauged my own reaction against that of my mother’s. She would always let out a slight groan, as though she could feel their pain and suffering. And while it is true that my mother can be overly dramatic, I still felt like there was something wrong with me. Now I feel so bad for those kids. I mean, I can’t even go three hours without getting hangry, and God knows how long they go without eating. I am also a lot more empathic toward people I see living on the street. I am more open to having conversations with them. I would never have thought thay I would feel comfortable talking to someone with schizophrenia, but that is exactly what I did when I co-facilitated a psycho education group at the Manhattan VA Medical Center. I know now that people are more than their mental illnesses and substance addictions. And, because of this, I am a lot less judgmental. I can’t just tell people to stop doing this or do that or else. A lot of the times they can’t do it on their own. They need help. Sometimes teams of people. Social workers are part of that team, and we are taught to treat all people with dignity. If you don’t believe me just look up our code of ethics.

I feel like I have grown so much in the last two years. Yet I have so much more to learn. When I first started taking courses in the master’s program I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Now I know that social work is a special profession. One in which we put the needs of others ahead of our own. Trust me, you would never hear a social worker say he or she chose their career for the money. As Father McShane, the President of Fordham, stated in his closing remarks during our diploma presentations yesterday, social workers are odd. I like being odd.

Chasing Away Spirits in Trinidad

I don’t like scary movies. I especially avoid the ones having to do with spirits. I really want to see Crimson Peak because I love Guillermo del Toro, but the preview gave me chills. Plus Stephen King said it terrified him so I know for sure my nerves would be unable to deal with the content if the king of the horror genre couldn’t handle it. And it’s not because I’m just a coward. I mean I am a coward. I’m not ashamed to admit that. <_< But mostly because I have had experience with spirits. Coming from a small village in Trinidad, I have heard my share of scary stories about people’s encounters with the spirit world while growing up, but I always consoled myself by saying they’re just folk tales. One afternoon that all changed.

It was Saturday. I got home from first communion class to find everyone huddled around the kitchen table, which made me question why I had to be the only one of the cousins to be Catholic. My Saturdays were screwed for months. But I digress. They were all so quiet, something that is not synonymous with being a Trini — or a Richardson. I asked who died, then I heard my mother say, “He here.”

My mother looked the most serious I had ever seen her. Apparently my grandmother thought it was a good idea to hire an obeah man to get rid of a spirit in the house. Lately the floorboards had been creaking more frequently and keeping her awake. Back then I slept like a log and heard nothing, but my uncle convinced me it was just the wind blowing through a very old house. I accepted his explanation for years — even though it made no sense because where we lived was rarely windy. I just didn’t want to believe it was anything else.

A heavyset man and his wife, both of East Indian descent, cautiously made their way through our living room and into the kitchen. Their eyes took in everything as though they were contractors inspecting a house. The man spoke briefly to my grandmother and made his way to the kitchen table where we were all gathered.

“I doh want to be here for dis,” I said. “I going next door.”

“Nobody leavin dis house.” He glared at me as he said this, sternly.

“If anybody leave, and de spirit is in DAT person, I would do my ting and dey would come back WIT de spirit. And all dis woulda be for nothing.”

I grew tense. My mother thought I was just a skeptic, but I was actually scared out of my wits.

My cousins and I sat solemnly as the man mopped the entire house with a concoction his wife threw into a bucket of hot water. We just wanted to watch TV for fucks sakes. That was so not how I expected my Saturday evening to go. The man then drew a symbol behind my grandmother’s bedroom door, which led to the front porch.

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Very similar to this.

He said it was to keep whoever it was from reentering. O_O He dug a hole at the bottom of the front steps, grounded heads of garlic into it, and buried it. After he lit a candle and put it on a plate at the bottom of the step, he rejoined us at the table and proceeded to pray over us.

He prayed for what seemed like an eternity. I sat there, bored as hell, and tried to repress my eyes from rolling. Suddenly the house began to shake. At first I thought it was my imagination. I thought maybe one of my nervous cousins was shaking a leg under the table. But the shaking became more pronounced. Everyone’s eyes shifted toward my grandmother’s bedroom. Something. Someone was frantically running around as if they were looking for a way out. Doors trembled. I trembled as I dug my nails into my mother’s thigh.

Then my grandmother’s bedroom door flung open. My aunt Elsa, someone I often thought to be fearless, gasped as her eyes widened in disbelief. She yelled, “LOOK!”

We rushed to the front porch and heard footsteps running down the stairs. My uncle hollered as the plate which held the candle split in half, as though it had been stepped on by whoever it was leaving the house. And they were gone. Everyone returned to the kitchen. We sat there, trying to make sense of what had transpired. My grandmother was the only one who looked unfazed. She never moved from her chair.

“Da is it,” the man said, matter-of-factly. He and his wife started packing up.

“What happen?” Elsa needed answers.

“Whoever it was wasn’t evil,” he said. “Dey didn’t mean no harm. Was just being a pest.”

My grandfather’s dead body was the only one that had ever been in the house since it was built decades ago. The obeah man said the spirit was definitely male, because he felt a great presence. There was a good chance it was him. So all of the times I felt someone tug at my clothes while I played with my toys on the floor of my grandmother’s bedroom; all those times I felt someone sit at the foot of my bed just as I was falling into a deep sleep, it could have been him. I never talked about those experiences because I believed talking about it would somehow make it real. By ignoring it I was able to restrict it to my mind and simply say I was just tired and feeling things.

No one complained about the house creaking after that evening. I guess he never came back. I migrated to New York City and joined the Navy soon afterwards. Ten years later, a few weeks after being honorably discharged, I was on my way to meet my boyfriend at his job so we could catch a movie. It was a beautiful April afternoon. The sun still shone brilliantly and the air was crisp. I window shopped on 5th Avenue with a goofy grin on my face. It was the first time in years that I felt free. As I strolled through the busy sidewalk, I felt a tug on the back of my jacket sleeve and turned around expecting to be greeted by an old friend, only to see jaded New Yorkers going about their business.

“Hi, hun.” My boyfriend snuck up behind me as I stared into the crowds. “You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You sure?” He was genuinely concerned. Guess I needed to work on my poker face.

“I’ll tell you about it later.” I never did.

Still, I fantasize about being able to watch a movie about wandering spirits without losing much sleep. But I know I won’t be able to do so without wondering if one of them followed me home.